Victorian London - Lighting - Gas, history 


THE Very Rev. Dr. Clayton, Dean of Kildare, having experimentally ascertained that permanently elastic and inflammable aŽriform fluid is evolved from pit-coal; described the same in a letter to the Hon. Robert Boyle, who died in 1691; though the discovery was not published in the Philosophical Transactions till the year 1739. Hughes, in his Treatise on Gas-works, 1853, says :- "To the celebrated Dr. Watson, Bishop of Llandaff, we are indebted for the first notice of the important fact, that coal gas retains its inflammability after passing through water into which it was allowed to ascend through curved tubes; but there is evidence in the Miscellanea Curiosa, 1705-6-7, vol iii. p. 281, to show that Dr. Clayton also discovered that gas retains its inflammability after passing through water. (See Notes and Queries, 2nd S., No. 38, pp. 324-5.)
    Although the Chinese have, for ages, employed natural Coal-Gas for lighting their streets and houses, only within the present century has Gas superseded in London the dim oil-lights and crystal-glass lamps of the preceding century. Dr. Johnson is said to have had a prevision of this change; when, one evening, from the window of his house in Bolt-court, he observed the parish lamplighter ascend a ladder to light one of the glimmering oil-lamps: he had scarcely descended the ladder halfway when the flame expired; quickly returning, he lifted the cover partially, and thrusting the end of his torch beneath it, the flame was instantly communicated to the wick by the thick vapour which issued from it. "Ah!" exclaimed the Doctor, "one of these days the streets of London will be lighted by smoke!" (Notes and Queries, No. 127.)
    Coal-gas had been used for lighting by William Murdoch, in Cornwall, Birmingham, and Manchester as early as 1792, when F. A. Winsor, a German, after several experiments, lighted the old Lyceum Theatre in 1803-1804; he also established a New Light and Heat Company, with 50,000l. for further experiments; in 1807 he lighted one side of Pall Mall, and on the King's birthday (June 4,) brilliantly illuminated the wall between Pall Mall and St. James's Park; and next exhibited Gas-light at the Golden-lane Brewery, August 16, 1807.
    In 1809 Winsor applied to Parliament for a charter, when the testimony of Accum, the chemist, was bitterly ridiculed by the Committee. In 1810-12 was established the Gas-Light and Coke Company, in Cannon-row, Westminster; removed to Peter-street, or Horseferry-road, then the site of a market-garden, poplars, and a tea- garden. In 1814 Westminster Bridge was lighted with gas; and the old oil-lamps were removed from St. Margaret's parish, and gas lanterns substituted; and on Christmas-day, 1814, commenced the general lighting of London with gas. Yet the scheme had been so ridiculed, that Sir Humphry Davy, F.R.S., asked "if it were intended to take the dome of St. Paul's for a gasometer." Dr. Arnott has truly said, with respect to the mistakes about gas-lighting, that "such scientific men as Davy, Wollaston, and Watt, at first gave an opinion that coal-gas could never be safely applied to the purposes of street lighting."
    "Winsor's patent Gas" first illumined (Jan. 28, 1807,) the Carlton House side of Pall Mall; the second, Bishopsgate-street. The writer attended a lecture given by the inventor; the charge of admittance was three shillings, but, as the inventor was about to apply to Parliament, members of both houses were admitted gratis. The writer and a fellow-jester assumed the parts of senators at a short notice. "Members of Parliament!" was their important ejaculation at the door of entrance. "What places, gentlemen ?" "Old Sarum and Bridgewater. "Walk in, gentlemen." Luckily, the real Simon Pures did not attend. This Pall Mall illumination was further noticed in Horace on London 
"And Winsor lights, with flame of gas,
        Home to King's-place his mother."
    In the Peace Rejoicings of 1814, the Chinese bridge and pagoda on the canal, in St. James's Park, were lighted with gas. Mr. Jerdan, in his Autobiography, relates:- 
    "My friend, David Pollock, who was about the earliest promoter of the introduction of gas from the invention of Mr. Winsor - the first successful experimentalist with it in his own dwelling - and for 30 years Governor of the Chartered Gas Light and Coke Company, was so concerned in the application, that he hastened to London from the Circuit to be present at the lighting of the bridge and pagoda with this new flame. Mortifying to relate, it will be remembered that the pagoda caught fire: the gas was put out, happily without explosion, and every part thrown into smouldering darkness."
    In 1814, a Committee of Members of the Royal Society was appointed to inquire into the causes which led to an explosion of the Gas-works in Westminster, which had only just been established. The Committee consisted of Sir Joseph Banks, Sir C Blagden, Col. Congreve, Mr. Lawson, Mr. Rennie, Dr. Wollaston, and Dr. Young They met several times at the Gas-works, for the purpose of examining the apparatus, and made a very elaborate Report. They were strongly of opinion that if gaslighting was to become prevalent, the Gas-works ought to be placed at a considerable distance from all buildings, and that the reservoirs, or gasometers, should be small and numerous; and always separated from each other by mounds of earth, or strong party-walls. (Weld's Hist. Royal Society, vol. ii. pp. 235-6,)
    In 1822, St. James's Park was first lighted with gas; and the last important locality to adopt gas lighting was Grosvenor-square in 1842.
    Theatres were first lighted in 1817-18; church clock-dials in 1827. The Haymarket was the last of the London theatres into which gas was introduced, in consequence of some absurd prejudice of the proprietor of that theatre, who bound the lessee to adhere to the old-fashioned method of lighting with oil. The change took place April 15, 1853.
    Coal-gas is made from coal enclosed in red-hot cast-iron or clay cylinders, or retorts; when hydro-carbon gases are evolved, and coke left behind; the gas being carried away by wide tubes, is next cooled and washed with water, and then exposed to lime in close purifiers. It is then stored in sheet-iron gas-holders, miscalled gasometers: some of which hold 700,000 cubic feet of gas; and the several London Companies have storage for millions of cubic feet of gas. Thence it is driven by the weight of the gas-holders through cast-iron mains or pipes under the streets, and from them by wrought-iron service-pipes to the lamps and burners.
    The London Gas Company's works, Vauxhall, are the most powerful and complete in the world: from this point, their mains pass across Vauxhall-bridge to western London; and by Westminster and Waterloo Bridges to Hampstead and Highgate, seven miles distant, where they supply gas with the same precision and abundance as at Vauxhall.
    Gas made from oil and resin is too costly for street-lighting, but has been used for large public establishments. Covent-garden Theatre was formerly lighted with oil- gas, made on the premises; and the London Institution, with resin-gas, first made by Mr. Daniell. The lime-ball, Bude, Boccius, and electric lights have been exhibited experimentally for street-lighting, but are too expensive. Upon the Patent Air-light (from the vapour of hydro-carbon, mixed with atmospheric air), proposed in 1838, upwards of 30,000l. were expended unsuccessfully.

    What has the new light of all the preachers done for the morality and order of London, compared to what had been effected by gas lighting! Old Murdoch alone has suppressed more vice than the Suppression Society; and has been a greater police-officer into the bargain than old Colquhoun and Sir Richard Birnie united - Westminster Review, 1829.
    From a recent Parliamentary Return, it appears that in the year 1865, the total revenue paid by the consumers and the public for gas in the metropolis, amounts to the large sum of 1,767,261l. l9s. 9d. per annum. This total increases every year with the growth of the metropolis and the increased consumption of gas.
    A public lamp has been kept up in a part of Billingsgate, where, upwards of 200 years ago, a citizen fell at night and broke his leg, and afterwards bequeathed a sum of 4l. a year for the maintenance there of a public light at night for all time. The money has been paid for two centuries; and, since the introduction of gas, to a gas company, who have kept up the light.

    An ordinary candle consumes as much air while burning as a man in health while breathing; the same may be said with regard to gas, oil-lamps, &c., bearing a proportion to the amount of light evolved. One hour after the gas of London is lighted, the air is deoxydized as much as if 500,000 people had been added to its population. During the combustion of oil, tallow, gas, &c., water is produced. In cold weather we see it condensed on the windows of ill-ventilated shops. By the burning of gas in London during twenty-four hours, more water is produced than would supply a ship laden with emigrants on a voyage from London to Adelaide.

John Timbs, Curiosities of London, 1867